Sefi Atta’s novel, Swallow, was both a blessing and a curse. I bought it three years ago to read on my Kindle because I knew that I had a long bus ride coming up, but I couldn’t put it down after I purchased it. I was already halfway through it before I even boarded the bus. There was a lot of thumb-twiddling for the last two hours of that journey.
It was hilarious, insightful, harsh, and nerve-wracking. I really got into the characters. Atta discusses everything from workplace sexual harassment, corruption, poverty, what those of us raised in the West would call “child abuse” and what our counterparts raised in Africa would probably just call “parenting,” prostitution, to relationships— between mother and daughter, husband and wife, roommates, neighbours, and colleagues.
One central theme is motherhood and its relationship to marriage. One of the characters says that in childhood, she believed that
the worst thing for a woman was to be married. Yes, I knew that I would be one day. All girls did. You reached a certain age and you were married off. Your family arranged that. They received your dowry: cloth, yams, palm oil, goats, or whatever your husband’s family could afford, to show his appreciation for your upbringing. It was a token, nothing more. You moved into his home, had children, and took care of them.
The same character, later, when berated for not having had a child thinks, “So that was all I was born for, to give birth?”
Although she’s a fictional character speaking about what I’m guessing is the early 1960’s, is it really all that different from real life in 2016? Although those in urban areas are less likely to participate in the dowry system, in my experience, it’s still a given that you leave your “father’s house” to go and join your husband. My maternal cousin, for example, when she knew that I was getting married (don’t worry, that crashed and burned spectacularly) and wanted to have the wedding in Japan because that’s where I grew up, agreed that’s where it should take place, but for a totally different reason: “He’s coming for you, so you should have the wedding your parents are.” “Um, no,” I said. “He’s not buying me.” She said “I know he’s not buying you, but he’s coming for you.”
How is that different from buying me?
My paternal aunt also once made a comment that when I get married, since I will be absorbed by my husband’s family, maybe the family curse would be lifted for me.
I was working at a human rights organization where I was chastised for not subscribing to gender roles. A human rights organization. People constantly tell me that I’m never going to find a man who will accept that I don’t want to have children. I was once at a birthday lunch where my Ghanaian-American friend who I’ve mentioned before announced to the entire table that I didn’t want to have kids because I didn’t want my body to change, and everyone (except the birthday girl, who, ironically was pregnant) began attacking me for it.
I am not joking. They descended upon me like a bunch of fucking vultures on a wildebeest carcass. Arguing with me that their bodies bounced back, trying to analyze why didn’t I want to, and my friend’s mom telling me that I’m a woman and I have to give a man children because they’re entitled to have them, and wouldn’t tolerate a woman who wouldn’t have children.
It’s common for everyone to think that they know a woman’s mind better than she knows her own- she will change her mind about wanting to have children, or she will realize that it’s her obligation to her husband/the earth/as an African, and will do so. When you add specific cultural expectations, it seems to me that women’s agency is nonexistent; that personal rights are meaningless, and that the messages in Atta’s book are reality for so many.
Have you read Swallow? To what extent do you think it reflects the realities of being an African woman today? Do/did you feel pressured into having children even if you didn’t want any? Do you think an African woman is obligated to have children for her husband?